I’ve always thought of The Shins’ music as summer music (probably due to their first album Oh, Inverted World), suited to driving down the highway with the windows rolled down, heading for the beach. Whether or not this association has merit, or if I just view all indie-pop in that light, the latest album from James Mercer and company, Port of Morrow, conjures up images of the spring more than the summer. By balancing dark tones with light flourishes, Port of Morrow creates a sense of rebirth and rejuvenation that comes with the budding of the trees and the green of the grass (of course, maybe it’s just that I’ve been listening to it in the spring…). Musically, it sits between the band’s lighter first two albums and the moodier Wincing the Night Away; lyrically, the abstraction that pervaded Wincing the Night Away is tempered by tangible, relatable passages.
Port of Morrow transitions fairly seamlessly between faster and slower songs, in part because of how the lyrics tie the album together. The sea is referenced in many songs, often connected to Mercer’s position in life, suggesting his awareness of the shifting and unpredictable nature of life. The lead single, “Simple Song,” uses sea-faring imagery amidst crashing cymbals and swirling guitars: “My life in an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff. You brought me a great big flood and gave me a lift.” Ultimately, the disorienting lyrics and music of the verses give way to the chorus’s declaration of need, “I know that things can really be rough when you go it alone. Don’t go thinking you gotta be tough, and play like a stone.” Likewise “It’s Only Life” mentions the sea during the verses to set up another chorus that finds Mercer pledging his assistance to a friend: “I’ve been down the very road you’re walking now, it doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome. It takes a while but we can figure this thing out and turn it back around.”
The prevalence of ocean imagery is appropriate for what is, in many ways, a comeback album for Mercer and The Shins, coming after five years of silence, Broken Bells notwithstanding. On the hauntingly beautiful “September,” Mercer sings of a lover, “born of the sea,” who “loves in spite of everything else.” It is a hopeful song, its charming lyrics meshing with a subdued pace, filled in by strokes of background vocals; here, love can remake us despite our faults. Similar in musical tone, “For a Fool” is somewhat less optimistic, yet deceptively catchy, its slow drumming and sporadically strummed guitar giving the backdrop to Mercer’s tale of woe. Indeed, the second half of the album becomes darker, often dwelling on stories of those less fortunate or of lost love. With this, Mercer provides a realistic portrait of life; not everything will always be happy, as he sings on “40 Mark Strasse,” “Cause every single story is a story about love, both the overflowing cup and the painful lack thereof.”
Occasionally, Port of Morrow is not unlike a more indie-oriented U2 album, especially considering the album’s digressions from its stories of love to explore political and social themes. If you stop to examine the lyrics of “No Way Down,” their abstractions eventually coalesce into a blatant political statement about wealth in America: “Oh, all of our working days are done, but a tiny few are having all of the fun. Apologies to the sick and the young, get used to their dust in your lungs.” Regardless of political persuasion, “No Way Down” is enjoyable, buoyed by a relentless energy and jangling tambourine. The album’s closer and title track follows closely in the trajectory of “No Way Down,” with Mercer attempting his best Thom Yorke impression. The creepy, aquatic sounding music effectively draws together the oceanic theme that has pervaded the album, and Mercer’s musings turn inward, considering the disasters humanity wreaks upon the earth. “I saw a photograph: Cologne in ’27 and then a postcard after the bombs in ’45. Must’ve been a world of evil clowns that let it happen.” Then, shockingly, Mercer turns those lines back on us, implicating us in the evil, “But now I recognize, dear listeners, that you were there and so was I.”
Mercer’s proclamation on the album closer, however, only serves to bring the community theme to the forefront. After all, what Mercer is really talking about on this album is the power of love to influence and shape the people around us. On “Fall of ‘82” he remembers a friend’s impact on his life, “Had you never been my friend, I wouldn’t be quite what you see, I wouldn’t be the man I am.” Who knows, without the love and support of our friends and neighbors (and maybe even with it), we might not be so far away from the “world of evil clowns” ourselves. That is to say, but for the grace of God we will become silhouettes…